Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Two River Theater’s Production of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM Starring Arnetia Walker, Brandon J. Dirden, Michael Cumpsty, James A. Williams and More, Opens Sept. 16

Two River Theater, under the leadership of Artistic Director John Dias and Managing Director Michael Hurst, is presenting August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Previews kick off tonight, with the opening night on Friday, September 16 at 8pm, and performances continue through October 9th.

Ma Rainey

Two River Theater opens its season with an extended four-week run of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Two River’s fourth production from August Wilson’s American Century Cycle following its acclaimed productions of JitneyTwo Trains Running, and Seven Guitars. Wilson’s incendiary drama, set in the 1920s, takes audiences into the world of legendary singer Ma Rainey (the real-life “Mother of the Blues”) as she lays down tracks with her band in a Chicago recording studio.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will be directed by actor, playwright, and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway production of Seven Guitars. His recent directing credits include Skeleton Crew at the Atlantic Theater and his own world-premiere play Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine at Two River.

The cast stars Arnetia Walker as Ma Rainey and Brandon J. Dirden as Levee. The cast also features Chanté Adams as Dussie May, Harvy Blanks as Slow Drag, Brian D. Coats as Toledo, Michael Cumpsty as Irvin, Bob Mackasek as Policeman, Marcel Spears as Sylvester, Peter Van Wagner as Sturdyvant, and James A. Williams as Cutler.

Chanté Adams (Dussie May) is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, where her credits include Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. She appeared in Gertrude Stein SAINTS! with FringeNYC and at the Henry Street Settlement – Abrons Arts Center.

Harvy Blanks (Slow Drag) has appeared in all 10 of the plays in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, including nine Wilson productions at the Denver Center Theater, where he was a company member for 28 years. He appeared in Two River’s productions of Jitney and Two Trains Running. His regional credits include the world premiere of Danai Gurira’s Familiar at Yale Repertory Theatre.

Brian D. Coats (Toledo) made his Two River debut last season in Seven Guitars. His regional credits include Invisible Man (Huntington Theatre Company/Studio Theater), for which he received a shared Helen Hayes Award.  His television credits include Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos.

Michael Cumpsty (Irvin) received a Tony Award nomination for End of the Rainbow and an Obie Award for his performance as Hamlet at Classic Stage Company. His recent credits include Body of an American for Primary Stages and Hartford Stage. At Two River Theater, he has appeared in Absurd Person SingularPresent Laughter, and Much Ado About Nothing and directed Third.

Brandon J. Dirden (Levee) directed August Wilson’s Seven Guitars last season at Two River Theater, where his credits as an actor include Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine, Topdog/Underdog, and Jitney. He received an Obie Award for his performance in The Piano Lesson at Signature Theater; his Broadway credits include All the Way. He plays a recurring role on the FX series The Americans.

Bob Mackasek (Policeman) has been seen in August: Osage County with the Chatham Players, Three Sisters with Gowanus Arts Productions, and God of Carnage with Summit Playhouse, among other productions.

Marcel Spears (Sylvester) most recently co-starred in Trouble in Mind at The Guthrie Theater. His New York credits include the title role of the Classic Stage Company’s Young Company production of Othello; the CSC production of Mother Courage; and Page 73’s production of Judy.

Peter Van Wagner (Sturdyvant) has appeared in productions in New York, around the country, and internationally. His credits include A Thousand Clowns at Roundabout, Merry Wives of Windsor at Chicago Shakespeare, and West Side Story at La Scala-Milan. He was part of the SAG Award-winning Ensemble of Boardwalk Empire and has appeared in films including Annie and Arthur.

Arnetia Walker (Ma Rainey) began her acting career on Broadway at the age of 16 in Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sydney Brustein’s Window. She went on to appear in Two Gentlemen of VeronaThe WizRaisin, and Dreamgirls, where she holds the distinction of being the only actress to have played all three of the lead female roles. Her most recent stage performance was in Head of Passes at The Public Theater. Her film and television credits include Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and Nurses.

James A. Williams (Cutler) was seen in Jitney and Two Trains Running at Two River. A mainstay of the Twin Cities theater scene since 1976, he is a founding member of Penumbra Theatre Company, where he began his lifelong relationship with August Wilson. His credits in New York include Radio GolfThe Piano Lesson, and My Children! My Africa!.

The creative team for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom includes scenic designer Charlie Corcoran, costume designer Karen Perry, lighting designerBurke Brown, and sound designer Rob Kaplowitz. The original music is by Bill Sims Jr. & Kenny Rampton, the fight direction is by Thomas Schall, the casting is by Heidi Griffith & Kate Murray, and the stage manager is Laura Wilson.

Ticket Information

Ticket prices range from $40 to $70, with discounts available for groups, seniors, and U.S. military personnel, their families, and veterans. A limited number of $20 tickets are available for every performance; $20 tickets may be partial view. Tickets for patrons under 30 are $20 and include the best available seats at every performance. Tickets are available from or 732.345.1400.

Two River Theater, under the leadership of Artistic Director John Dias and Managing Director Michael Hurst, creates great American theater performed by award-winning artists. We produce American and world masterpieces, and new plays and musicals. Two River Theater offers new-play commissions and artistic development activities that support the most adventurous artists in the American theater; invites its audience to be part of the creative process through readings and open rehearsals; and cultivates students and young people to participate in innovative arts-education programs and become a new generation of theatergoers. Founded in 1994 by Joan and Dr. Robert M. Rechnitz, Two River Theater is easily accessible by car, train, or bus, with great restaurants and shopping within walking distance of the theater. For more information, visit or call 732.345.1400.  

Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang_photo by Garth Kravits

Lia Chang_photo by Garth Kravits

Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers,  musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Examiner.comJade Magazine and

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